When Feedback is Hard to Hear:  Part 3

When Feedback is Hard to Hear: Part 3

As leaders who are committed to growing, we should crave feedback.  The problem is, most of us shy away from it.
When we are surprised by feedback that points to our weaknesses, we tend to take things personally. We get defensive. We rationalize the critique away.  When we do this, we may be missing out.

If we are courageous enough to respond differently, then honest feedback can become our greatest teacher and source of professional growth.

Being reminded that the best leaders bravely seek feedback, I ‘doubled down’ at my school.  In addition to leaning into the recent feedback conversation I had with a staff member, I decided to push further. This week I asked my instructional leadership team, “How could I lead better?”  What I learned was invaluable.

1. The feedback wasn’t as bad as I feared. While there were moments that I had to bite my lip to keep myself from responding, affirmation came as well.
2. The feedback gave me actionable items for follow up.  Getting actionable items provides me an opportunity to show that I am listening.

My real-time learning has been accelerated by some of the best leadership thinkers in the industry. Dr. Goldsmith has been called one of the world’s most influential leadership thinkers (2011, 2015). His experience coaching executives, particularly in the field of business, carries into the educational leadership context.

Advice from Dr. Marshall Goldsmith- “4 Ways to Win Now” Entre Leadership Podcast  &  What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

marshall-goldsmith                WhatGotYouHere-by-MarshallGoldsmith

1. Developing a skill for receiving feedback can take you from near great to great. Leaders like you have “been successful because you do a lot things right, and in spite of doing some things that are stupid.” We all have blindspots.
2. There are 100 bad ways to ask for feedback and 1 good way. When asking for feedback directly, the only question that works is some version of, “How can I do better?”
3. Stop asking for feedback and then expressing your opinion. The first thing we want to do when we ask for input is the last thing we should do: give our opinion.
4. Don’t judge the ideas people give you.  Just listen and say thank you. If you react positively to ideas you immediately like and negatively to ideas that you don’t like, then your colleagues will shape their behavior. Eventually people will feed you exactly what they think you want to hear.
5. Never promise to do everything people say. Leadership is not a popularity contest. “Look, thank you for your ideas. I can’t promise to do everything. I am going to listen and do what I can. I can’t change the past, but I can change the future. I’m going to work hard, involve you, and do the best I can.”
6. Prior to asking people for input, let them know where you are on the decision curve:  A) Is it a done deal? B) Is it nearly decided, but you want to know what could go possibly wrong? C) Do you have a few viable options and want to know which is the most feasible? D) Are you truly open for new and creative solutions? Being clear about this can change the game for you.
7. Tweetable: “Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near great.”

Image by Tihn Te Photos via Flickr
When Feedback is Hard to Hear: Part 2

When Feedback is Hard to Hear: Part 2

It’s never a good time to hear hard things about your leadership.
It can take you by surprise.
It can sting too, like an unexpected tetanus shot at a routine medical checkup.

The feedback I recently received from a collegue stung a great deal.
“I don’t feel like you trust me.”
“I don’t think you really want to hear what we think.”

Hearing these critiques, my instinct was to defend myself.
“That can’t be true.”
“Of course I trust you.”
“This person is stuck somehow.”

But I didn’t say those things.
I took a deep breath.
I looked confused.
I stood perplexed.
Perhaps uncharacteristically, I responded, “Tell me more. I want to understand.”

Then I listened.
As it turns out, this was the best move I could’ve possibly made. If nothing else, my questioning put me in a position to learn. I have lots to learn about myself, about leadership, and about getting the most out of others.

With a little more time, and the motivation to become a more effective leader, I turned to the advice of others. I found quality resources on the topic and devoured them. Allow me to share some highlights from this insightful and timely text:

 Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen


1. If we are serious about our own development and growth, we can’t wait around for perfectly delivered feedback. In fact, the majority of our learning is going to have to come from, “…people who are doing their best but may not know better, who are too busy to give us the time we need, who are difficult themselves, or who are just plain lousy at giving feedback or coaching” (18).

2. Receiving feedback well doesn’t mean we always have to take the feedback.  Instead, it means engaging fully in the conversation, navigating it skillfully, and being thoughtful about whether and how to use the feedback for our growth (20).

3. When feedback is difficult, give yourself a second score for how you handle the first score. It’s easy to get discouraged when we hear about our own shortcomings. Giving ourselves a “score” for how we handle the critique, helps us stay focused on the present.  “While the initial evaluation may not be fully within your control, your reaction to it usually is” (181).

4. Separate the different strands of feedback. What do you feel?  What is the story you are telling yourself?  What is the actual feedback?  Those three things are different.  It’s important to tease them out.

5. Nothing affects the learning culture of an organization more than the skill with which its executive team receives feedback.  “If you seek out coaching, your direct reports will seek out coaching. If you take responsibility for your mistakes, your peers will be encouraged to fess up as well; if you try out a suggestion from a coworker, they will be more open to trying out your suggestions” (21).

6. Tweetable: “Is it possible that feedback is like a gift and like a colonoscopy?

I still have more to learn on this topic.  Stay tuned for part 3…

When Feedback is Hard to Hear: 1 of 3

When Feedback is Hard to Hear: 1 of 3

Yesterday I was meeting with one of my staff members. I was checking in on the progress of some of our goals when the conversation took a turn.

“I don’t think you trust me.”

My heart began to pound. The wheels started spinning. What was she even talking about? Courageously, and with some hesitation, the staff member expounded.

“Don’t get me wrong, you are the best leader I have worked with. I want you to hear that…”

She continued, “But I wonder sometimes if you really care what we think.”

Now, removed from the conversation by 23 hours, I sit stinging from the feedback but looking to grow from it, even if that means admitting my shortcomings and changing some behaviors. In the end, I want to lead well, to build trust, and positively impact children through other people.

As leaders who are committed to growing, we should crave feedback. The problem is, most of us shy away from it.
When feedback is negative, we tend to take things personally. We get defensive. We rationalize the critique away. When we do this, we may be missing out. If we are courageous and enough to respond differently, then honest feedback can become our greatest teacher and source of professional growth.

I am currently learning from Craig Groeschel on the topic of feedback:

Craig Groeschel: leadership podcast Giving and Receiving Feedback:

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 8.28.11 PM

1. Work to develop a culture of honest, timely and helpful feedback. We are the leaders of the organization. It should start with us.
2. A growth mindset helps us handle feedback that is difficult to hear. The feedback is simply giving us direction, for our next steps as leaders.
3. Remember to separate the “do” from the “who.” The best feedback is about what we do, not who we are.
4. When you find yourself getting most defensive, that’s when you need to listen most. This could be an opportunity for growth. “The more I want to push back; the more I need to listen.”
5. Ask clarifying questions to get a better understanding. Remember that general questions rarely lead to specific feedback. Specific questions like, “How can I do better next time?” are far more helpful.
6. Tweetable: “Don’t dread feedback, crave it.”

Stay tuned to hear my inner dialogue (and how I responded) after getting feedback that was hard to hear!


Image by Tihn Te Photos via Flickr
Literature Reviewed For Leaders: “Extreme Ownership”

Literature Reviewed For Leaders: “Extreme Ownership”

The 411: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2015.

My Tweet: My top leadership read in 2017! #extremeownership @jockowillink @LeifBabin

A Leader’s Take:  This book will have your heart pumping, taking you on counter insurgency missions on the streets of Ramadi, Iraq. Then it will have your brain firing, as you make connections between leadership principles and needed moves at your own school site. You will have a hard time putting the book down. And this will happen twelve times as you work through the individual chapters of this sure-to-be leadership classic.

One Take-Away:  Willink and Babin assert: the leadership principles that lead to success on the battlefield, also yield results in the business (or education) field(s). One overarching concept is that leaders who take ownership (“extreme ownership”) of an entire operation, including the setting expectations, reinforcing standards, acknowledging shortcomings, gain the trust of their teams and drive high performance. In their words, “Whether in SEAL training, in combat on distant battlefields, in business, or in life: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”  In education, and as leaders, we can get caught blaming district limitations, ineffective employees, or dysfunctional teams. This text reminded me that it is my responsibility to take ownership for our school’s performance, across the board. While there are forces outside of our locus of control, it is my responsibility to provide an honest assessment of where we are, get the staff to believe that improvement is possible, and push towards that mission.

Your Next Move: Get this book to your nightstand ASAP.

It Gets: 5 out of 5 apples!

Open Letter to a Passing Mentor

Open Letter to a Passing Mentor

We lost a great human and educator this week. I lost a mentor from a critical season of my life. Just hours after penning this letter, Lee passed on.  His impact on so many was profound.  Here is how I experienced it:

I was a student teacher and you were the savvy vet.

In a year’s time, I would be teaching ninth grade English, in the classrooms and hallways where you impacted students for decades. You did it through love, literature, and teaching strategies. Love always came first for you. Instinctively, you knew what was most important. Sure, your students needed literacy strategies and tools to communicate effectively. They needed to be pushed to think critically and speak articulately. But what they most needed was a caring adult that believed in them and could bring the best out of them.

This is what you did for me too; You helped bring the best out in me.

By the time I met you, you were impacting students through teachers like myself. Your impact was multiplied, as you coached pre-service and veteran teachers towards effective instruction and positive classroom environments. Your coaching helped me feel successful with students. And knowing that you believed in me, helped me step into some risks:

In 2001, I remember asking my wife to videotape me, acting outside a local liquor store, all to simulate a live simulcast interview of book characters for the next day’s lesson. I remember jumping in the middle of hallway fights, and then walking students towards reconciliation. I remember successfully bouncing between two passionate effective guide teachers, who had a healthy disdain for one another. I remember trying a typical elementary strategy, guided reading, at the high school level, because this is the support our struggling readers needed. I remember turning down a more lucrative job with more privileged students, for a chance to make a greater difference with students at our urban school.

As a student teacher, I remember how you made me feel.

Yours was the face that welcomed me into the profession. Yours was the face I sought out after hard days of teaching, where you affirmed my ability to reach students. Your voice was one I sought out, before making a step away from the classroom and toward school leadership.

In the end, you helped affirm my own calling, my life’s work.

Goodbye dear friend.You have left your mark.You live on through your students.You live on through me.

May I, like you, always lead with the heart.


Image courtesy of DePaul UCWbL via Flickr
This Kid is Ours Too

This Kid is Ours Too

Leadership is about keeping deeply held beliefs in alignment with our actions. It often requires pausing to reflect, diving deep into reflection, listening to our deepest voices, and generating the courage to admit that our behaviors and beliefs are out of alignment.

A core belief I hold tightly, is that: “Those Kids are Our Kids.” All of them. I believe it so deeply that I’ve laid stake to this reflective space, with it’s namesake. If a kid walks through our public school gates, we should see them, push them, care for them, support and believe in them as if they are our own.

 This is easy to say. In some cases, it can be trying to live out.

With one of our 430 students, I’m finding it particularly challenging to maintain this posture.

  • When elopement extends throughout the school day, and we can’t get the student back to class, it’s frustrating.
  • When she indiscriminately kicks kids on the playground, my patience runs out.
  • When I hear that she said, “Whoever invented homework, needs to be murdered,” I chuckle and then feel disturbed.
  • When an entire first grade class has to be reassured that they are safe, despite her threats, I step into the space and take a side.
  • When I spend large chunks of days following this student around campus to keep students safe, I think about the other work awaiting me and take deep breaths.
  • When I can’t get parents to pick her up on a day she is deemed dangerous to herself and others, I know we need outside help.
  • When I look into the eyes of my teachers, doing everything they’ve learned to be effective to no avail, I reassure them.

This student is ours. She is smart and bright and kind. But she is struggling mightily at a comprehensive elementary school.  The childhood trauma and developmental breaks are interfering too much. Despite her intentions, she’s not able to calm herself, trust adults, or participate in the learning with any consistency.

So we activated a referral for a different school placement. They assessed. They observed. They agreed. So she will likely transition into a more supportive, restrictive environment.

If I’m honest, I feel some relief. She will get the support she needs. Perhaps we won’t have to lock the school down for a while. She may gain skills that will give her power over the raging internal storms. She will get back to learning. She will have a new school.

But then it hits me: She is still ours.

She was ours in kindergarten when she showed up with uber excitement and brand new shoes to begin a formal education at our site. She was ours when learning got challenging. She was ours when she created a Van Gough replica that wow-ed the entire school building. She was ours when she hit the sub on the leg, with increasing force, testing the limits of acceptable classroom interactions. She was ours when she shared how hard learning was, when she didn’t have a consistent home to live in.

Lest I forget what I deeply believe and communicate a conflicting message to this student, her family, or my staff.  I will remind myself again and again: This child is ours. Because this child is ours, we will call out this reality. From afar, we will cheer her on. We will check on her progress. We will take good care of her siblings. And we will celebrate her return to our school, in a few months or in a year or more.

When we help this child thrive, academically and social-emotionally, we will be reminded of the deep-seated beliefs that motor our work. All kids can learn. We know how to teach them. Together we have what it takes. And all kids at our sites are “ours.”

Even this one.


Photo by Pete Prodoehl via Flickr
Closing the Literacy Gap

Closing the Literacy Gap

A little less than a year ago, I asked my seventh grade students to give me honest feedback about how they were spending their time.  With reading levels lower than their grade (7th) indicated, I anticipated a lack of commitment to reading.  But their responses ‘floored’ even me.  Time on various screens (computer, phone, video games, television) dwarfed the time spent with books.  As a class, they spent 75 times more minutes with on screens than in the act of reading!  As their English teacher, It’s safe to say that I knew that I had some work to do.

In order to close the achievement gap, it’s critical that ‘our kids’ read at increasing frequencies, duration, and rigors. We know that many of our students see and hear less words, per day, than their peers. It’s a fact that many of our students come to us several grade levels behind. We also know that reading skills are prerequisites for excelling in most college-prep content area courses.

So if we are serious about giving students both a) literacy skills for future success and b) a love of reading and learning, we will:

Increase their exposure to words. While factors impacting a child’s ability to read are many, one factor may trump all others. For over three decades now, we have known, via the research of Stanovich, that reading volume is directly related to a student’s ability to read (as cited in Fisher & Frey, 2013). Simply stated, kids who read more are better at it. In fact, correlations between reading volume and achievement were quantified in a study by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (as cited in Fisher & Frey, 2013). They demonstrated that students who read 21.1 minutes a day score in the 90th percentile. On the other hand, students who read less than five minutes a day (4.6 and less), score in the bottom half of their class. At the end of the day, students will improve in reading if we can just get them to read consistently.

Vary the format of their reading. We will increase the number of words our students see and take in, if we commit to varying the ways we ask students to engage in reading. We can read aloud captivating pieces. We can read with them, asking them to follow the text with their eyes, at the pace of a fluent reader (shared reading). We can approach a more complex text with a close reading strategies, to move readers into analysis and evaluation. We can have students read chorally, in partners, or in small groups. Additionally, we should have students read independently, both with a purpose and strictly for enjoyment. Varying the approach with students will not only keep text-based instruction fresh, it will increase the chances students engage in the act of reading.

Teach explicit strategies to help them access rigorous content. The truth is, students need more than just ‘time behind the wheel.’ They need some technical know-how. As a teacher of reading at the middle, high school and college levels, I’ve seen how a student’s confidence and competence can surge, when they master a handful of reading strategies. There are a multitude of strategies and approaches that teachers choose to introduce to their students (I personally like Jim Burke’s collection in Reading Reminders). What really matters, however, is helping students find strategies that they can use outside of the literacy context. Questioning, making connections, using graphic organizers, and inferring (to name a few) are all powerful. But if they do not go with students into their future science classrooms, independent reading times, or job training environments, the strategies will become like rusted tools locked in a storage garage. To increase the chances that students carry on with the explicit reading strategies we introduce, we should (1) introduce a wide variety of strategies (2) give them multiple opportunities to practice each (3) push them to reflect and identify a few that really work for them (metacognition!) and (4) recognize them for using the strategies unprompted.

Fight for high quality materials. Access to high quality literature and non-fiction, is an equity issue. If we expect our students to read regularly and we hope that they begin to love reading, then it is on us to connect them to engaging texts. Many of our on-campus libraries are under-staffed and over-dusty. We have access to laptops, but struggle to direct students to text that is appropriately leveled. One solution elementary teachers have used for some time is building leveled classroom libraries. Students then have access to appropriate reading on a daily basis. I decided to create this support for my sixth and seventh grade students last year. This involved hustling for books around campus, asking friends to donate, and writing multiple DonorsChoose grants. It required hours of looking up levels here and organizing them in a way that was clear and inviting. It meant inquiring about student interests and getting a pulse on trending young adult literature. In the end, students respond.

Provide timely feedback on developmental progress. Students should know if their reading skills are improving. Last school year, I made it a point to assess students reading levels at the beginning and end of the school year. Additionally, we celebrated the completion of independent reading books, tracking the totals per student. While this was helpful on many levels, students were left guessing about their in-year progress. Many NCUST award-winning schools have taken on systematic approaches for tracking student’s reading skill development. At the elementary levels, schools employ programs like Accelerated Readers. In the upper grades, schools are beginning to track lexile level improvement with programs like Achieve 3000. No matter the program, students will benefit from a systemic approach that pinpoints their realistic reading levels and tracks their progress incrementally.

Employ research-based principles of motivation. We all want our students to love reading. We want students to see reading as a frontier to be explored rather than an internment camp to endure. Furthermore, we know that positive attitudes towards reading translate to positive outcomes for children (Frey and Fisher, 2013 p.104) To get students there, I argue, we should consider proven principles of motivation.

From a classical behaviorist approach, we should consider reinforcing both big and small behaviors of reading engagement. Following a stimulus-response chain of events, we are hoping to see behavior change that results in more frequent and increasingly engaged independent reading. To achieve this, we should administer positive reinforcement in a timely manner, and in ways that students feel reinforced. This might look like stickers on a chart, special recognition, or treats. Over time, our rewarding of desired reading behaviors should be spread out, shifting from continuous to intermittent. As extrinsic rewards are spaced out, students will begin to experience and value the intrinsic value of reading, including increases in fluency, enjoyment of storylines, feelings of accomplishment, and reading efficacy.

Another approach to motivation, that I believe holds more promise, is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan and Deci, 1985) This framework for understanding human motivation has demonstrated fidelity in multiple domains. In fact, my masters-level research showed its promise in motivating youth in physical activity and exercise. But I believe it can be instrumental with reluctant readers as well. SDT recognizes that individuals are highly motivated when they feel (1) related (2) competent and (3) autonomous. With these critical predictive variables in mind, we could do a lot to help students autonomously select (and have access to) books that they are highly interested in. We have work to do in terms of helping students see their reading progress. If we can do that, their sense of competency will increase. Additionally, we can use book clubs and partner reading strategies to help them feel connected, or related, in the reading experience. There are countless other ways to increase students sense of autonomy, competency, and relatedness around reading. Our students reading skills will benefit if we work towards finding more!

The group of students, represented in the graph above, responded well to the approaches discussed here.  Over the course of a single year, students gained 2.16 grade levels on average (measured using the Analytic Reading Inventory). While most still have progress to make, many are on their way to closing the literacy gap and have promising futures!


Burke, J. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.
Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Rigorous reading: Five access points for comprehending complex texts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


How #FightHotCheetos Became a Thing

How #FightHotCheetos Became a Thing

Often the best way to address real challenges our students face, is to offer better, more intriguing alternatives.

This is how #FightHotCheetos became a thing at our middle school.

We know that obesity occurs at alarming rates in our youth populations. Nationwide, 17% of children and teens are obese (12.7 million students). On top of this, students in urban contexts are disparitly affected. More specifically, students who are Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, from low-income or less educated households are far more likely to become obese (CDC). Students attending my school, in particular, live in a “food desert.” Food detrimental to their health and well-being is offered on nearly every corner of the block.  But organic fruits and vegetables are neighborhoods away. Knowledge about how to work them into an everyday diet, might even be further away.


What we eat affects how we learn.

We know that what students eat affects the way they feel, how much they are motivated, and what they learn. In response to this reality, our school moved to serve breakfast in the classroom.  Our district even worked to improve nutritional offerings during the lunch time hour.


But it wasn’t enough.

The discolored fingertips, lethargic bodies, and neon-red post-run throw up (don’t ask to see the photo!) told us that we needed an intervention. Kids were still making poor food choices. So Ms. Burns and I took up the fight. But we didn’t take Hot Cheetos on directly. No, we were smarter than that. For an entire school year, we worked to present students with ‘delicious but nutritious’ alternative options every Tuesday.


We called it “Try it Out Tuesday.”

And kids ate it up! A majority of students proved brave enough to try on new tastes, new flavors. New fruits. New vegetables.


From dried mangoes to broccolini, from seaweed to tangelos, sparkling water to air-popped popcorn, students tried it all.


Their reactions were priceless.


Their palate increased.


Their consciousness around ingesting lab-created quasi-food (Hot Cheetos) heightened. The pictures tell our story well.


What out-of-the-box efforts are you seeing educators make to meet critical needs of their students?

Building a Winning School Team

Building a Winning School Team

In a different chapter of my career, as a college basketball coach, building successful teams was the ultimate goal.

In the off season, we scoured the local landscape, looking for talented players to contribute. We’d watch them play, introduce ourselves to their loved ones, organize official visits, and push for their commitment to join our program.

During the season, we focused our efforts on developing the team that we had on the roster. For us, this meant developing the individual skills of our players. It meant designing plays where their strengths were utilized. And it meant taking measures to build team unity and stoke positive chemistry.

Building successful teams is central to the job of any school administrator.  I would argue that administrators who are serious about building winning teams, need to think and act more like highly competitive coaches.


Here's the game plan:

Retain the talent that you already have on your team. While teacher retention remains a challenge in the urban context, I know it can be done. Teachers and critical support staff will happily stick around if they feel 1) competent in their work 2) convinced they are making a difference, and 3) connected to their colleagues. Administrators can impact teacher competency through effective coaching and differentiated professional development plans. Administrators can bolster a teacher’s sense of purpose by pointing out the positive impact on students and connecting their efforts to the school’s compelling mission. Administrators can increase teacher’s sense of connectedness to their colleagues by devoting a portion of staff meetings to team-building activities and creating spaces where organic and positive connections among staff are likely to occur (think welcoming lunch room, surprise roller skating trip in lieu of staff meeting, or BBQ at the principal’s place).

Proactively recruit top pre-service teachers.   Administrator Shawn Balnkenship, via The Connected Principal, puts it like this: “It’s simply impossible to improve a school by hiring average people.” Many would point to the limitations that exist, including union contracts, credentialing requirements, and district-level Human Resource (HR) protocol. But I strongly believe that we are going to have to start pushing against some of these boundaries. If we are expecting leaders in hard-to-staff schools to build winning teams, then we have to provide them greater flexibility in hiring. Some districts and schools are already getting creative. South Carolina just passed a bill that gives 42 high-poverty school districts money for out-of-the-box efforts that improve teacher recruitment and retention. My own ideas to attract top pre-service teachers include building relationships with key university staff who are supervising student teachers. I would leverage these relationships to identify top teaching talent and work to set up observations of prospective teachers during their full-year credentialing process. Just like we did with prospective college ‘hoopers,’ I would invite some of these top teachers to visit my site. I’d pitch our compelling vision and communicate our desire to see them apply.  Finally, I’d work with HR to offer contracts on a timeline that rivals with neighboring districts. Currently, many large urban districts offer first year contracts to teachers late, late, late in the summer. By the time contracts are ready to be offered, some of the best up-and-coming teachers have committed to teach elsewhere. For the sake of our students, we can’t afford to lose top teaching talent.

Become the school that passionate, veteran teachers want to come to. Admittedly, this is a long play. But there’s also a reason many successful companies rely on referrals for business. Simply put: it works. When people have great experiences, they talk about it.  They refer friends.  And momentum builds.  Steve Jobs relentlessly pushed Apple to provide “insanely great customer experiences” for this very reason.  We are relational beings.  Many teachers are uber relational. If we create schools where teachers feel competent in their work, convinced they are making a difference, and connected to their colleagues, then teacher retention will cease to become a pressing challenge. Teachers will refer one another to our schools.

And students will be the real winners.